I’ve recently finished reading Plato’s Republic for the first time. Before I study the book in further detail or consult any of the scholarly articles, I thought it might be worthwhile to consider my own thoughts of the book, free from influence of more learned sorts.
Republic is a lengthy read and feels somewhat rambling at times. So in that sense it does feel like a real conversation. The characters might introduce a point of discussion, but then feel the need to go off on a tangent. In fact, the book probably contain more in the way of digressions than on-topic discussion. Although these digressions are essential – helping to drive forward the main points – it does take a fair amount of concentration to keep track of all the threads, especially for the first-time reader. I’m sure it will all start to gel in my mind shortly – Plato must be a master writer and philosopher for a reason – but it will take time.
The easiest place to start when assessing Republic is with the overall theme of the book. Words such as ‘justice’ or ‘political philosophy’ often get bandied about when discussing the key themes, but these words can be ambiguous in a modern setting.
When people hear the word ‘justice’, they most likely think of the justice ‘system’ and the role of government in enforcing the law. While this sense of ‘justice’ doesn’t really appear in the book, ‘justice’ in Republic refers more to individual justice. Can we, for instance, say that ‘Socrates is a good and just person’? I soon discovered, at least in my own mind, it was better to think of the word ‘morality’ than ‘justice’. ‘Morality’ implies more a sense of individual responsibility, which I believe is what Plato was trying to convey.
Along similar lines, describing the book as ‘political philosophy’ might also be misleading. The source of this confusion is perhaps understandable given the book is called ‘Republic’. This causes the first-time reader to get the impression that the book intends to discuss various systems of government, finally making a conclusion about which type should be considered the most ideal. While this is partly true – Plato does indeed spend considerable time critiquing forms of government – this discussion is but a means to an end.
The primary goal of the book is morality from an individual’s point-of-view. What is morality, and how can we be certain that the moral life is more rewarding than the immoral life? Even today, people continue to ask why the wicked and immoral often end up with the better life (the larger slice of pie if you like). As a Christian might ask, ‘why do the good suffer, while the sinful escape punishment?’ This question clearly troubled Plato as well. Given the early reluctance in Republic to tackle this question directly, Plato seems to be suggesting that there are no easy answers.
At this stage of the book, Plato decides – somewhat arbitrarily – that morality is best found on the larger scale. We firstly need to find justice in the community before we can turn to individuals. This then leads to the lengthy depiction of the ideal community, which covers a wide range of topics: class division, education, gender, family, warfare, health. While all these topics are interesting in themselves, it helps to remember that Plato is merely setting the scene for his pivotal conclusion, that of the benefits of leading a more moral life.
In future posts, I intend to break down Republic in more detail, analysing the argument book-by-book (Republic consists of ten books, or chapters). By doing this, I’m sure that just like the hapless cave-dwellers depicted in the book, I will start to see more of the light myself. This will give me a better sense of why Plato has structured the book as he has.
For the moment, I do recommend approaching the book as a non-philosopher would, at least for a first reading. Don’t worry too much about all the threads and the subtle distinctions. Instead, just get a sense of the flow of the book and where all the arguments lie. When studying philosophy, one must never be in a rush to extract meaning.